At the same time, inside a falcon mews on the sagebrush prairie outside of Saddlestring, Nate Romanowski firmly grasped a pigeon in his left hand and twisted its head with his right, producing an audible snap. When the bird’s body responded with a last-breath flurry of flapping wings, he held it out at arm’s length until it went still. Then he chopped it up with an ax and fed it piece by piece to his raptors. It was the fifth pigeon of the morning, and the air was filled with tufts of downy feathers and the crunching sound of falcons eating the birds, bones and all. The morning air inside the mews smelled of the metallic odor of fresh blood and the pungent smell of splashy white bird droppings. The gullets of the falcons swelled to the size of hens’ eggs as they ate, and Nate made sure all nine of his hooded birds were satiated.
It was the daily circle of life and death for a master falconer. Nate inspected each bird—two red-tailed hawks, a gyrfalcon,
three prairie falcons, a Swainson’s hawk, and two peregrines—to make sure they were all healthy and fit. One of his prairie falcons had damaged its left wing the week before during an ill-fated swoop on a prairie dog, but it seemed to be recovering nicely.
He referred to the falcons as his Air Force. They were the instruments of his bird abatement company incorporated as Yarak, Inc. Yarak, Inc. was hired by farmers, ranchers, golf course operators, and industrialists to rid their property of problem birds, many of which were invasive species like starlings. Business was good. To keep up with demand, he knew he needed more birds and possibly an apprentice falconer by the next spring.
Nate washed his hands and the falconry bag that had held the live pigeons under the ice-cold stream of water from a spigot, dried his palms on the fabric of his thighs, and ambled toward the house. He was tall and rangy with long blond hair tied off in a ponytail by a leather falcon jess. He had icy blue eyes and a smile described by most observers as cruel.
The landscape surrounding him was largely scrub in all directions, but it was framed on the east and west by distant blue moun- tain ranges. There wasn’t a single tree for miles—which is how he liked it.
Although the property might have seemed conventionally unattractive to those who took a wrong turn on the gravel county roads and wound up there, Nate appreciated the strategic location of his home. Because it was located in the bottom of a vast natural bowl, the property he’d chosen had the same attributes as frontier-era forts such as Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger: it was impossible to sneak up on it without being seen. Nate had learned the tactic by observing the herd behavior of pronghorn antelope.
He paused before entering the house because he sensed movement. He turned on his porch to see a light-colored plume of dust looking like a comma in the distance. It was from the tires of a large vehicle of some kind. Since he rarely got visitors, he assumed the driver was lost and would turn around long before arriving at his place.
His forty acres contained an aging three-bedroom house, a detached garage, a metal building that served as vehicle storage and a welding shop, and the mews for his Air Force. The land and the buildings—except for the mews, which he’d recently constructed— had formerly belonged to a welder who’d serviced the energy industry until he was arrested for dealing meth on the side. When the welder’s property was put up for auction by the feds, Nate was the high bidder. Which meant that, for the first time in his life, he was a homeowner and a landowner. Nate was in the process of transforming the place from a welding-and-meth-friendly outpost to a falcon-and-family-friendly environment.For Nate, who was an outlaw falconer with a Special Forces background and a long list of alleged federal offenses (since dismissed), nothing had caused him more terror than getting married and having a child.
Because he now had a family. For Nate, who was an outlaw falconer with a Special Forces background and a long list of alleged federal offenses (since dismissed), nothing had caused him more terror than getting married and having a child. He went back and forth trying to decide if it was the best or worst thing he’d ever done. But he leaned toward the former.
Nate was a fifty percent owner of Yarak, Inc. His partner in business and life was Liv Brannon, his wife of four months. Liv ran the public side of the company, including marketing, booking jobs, maintaining social media, billing, finance, and compliance.
Liv was a stunning African American woman originally from Louisiana, and she sat at the computer on her desk in her home office wearing a headset. A Squash Blossoms CD played gently in the background. Cradled in her lap was six-week-old Kestrel, their daughter. Named after a small but feisty falcon, Kestrel opened her eyes when Nate came in the room. Her tiny hand raised up from her blankets and her arm trembled slightly. She didn’t yet have the motor control to still her limbs.
Kestrel was a tiny version of her mother and she had Liv’s full mouth and long eyelashes. He was devastated by her presence.
Nate placed his index finger in her palm and she gripped it. Yes, he thought, the former.
“Are you still going into town today?” Liv asked him. “Yes.”
“Can you pick up some Pampers on your way home?”
“Yes, the ones called ‘Swaddlers,’” Liv said. “I’m giving up on the cloth diapers. It’s too hard to keep up.”
“Swaddlers,” Nate repeated.
“You might want to write that down. They’re for newborns.
The last ones you got were for a six-month-old.”
“Yes,” Liv said. “I’ll save them and use them when she’s older.
But you need to look at the type.”
“I thought diapers were diapers,” Nate said.
Liv gave a They aren’t look and then jabbed a finger toward the screen.
“We got an inquiry from Hamilton, Montana,” she said. “A rancher needs to get rid of a barnful of starlings, but it’s eight hours away. What should we tell him?”
Before he could answer, Liv said, “Never mind. I think I can pair this job with another job for pigeon abatement in Bozeman.” She waved him away, but he didn’t move. Kestrel still gripped his finger. He wouldn’t leave until his daughter tired of him. Nate knew deep in his heart it would be like that forever. “Loren?” Liv called over her shoulder.
Loren Jean Hill emerged from the hallway with a gentle smile on her face. She was barely five feet tall and slight. Loren had answered an online ad Liv had placed for a live-in nanny, and had been the best-natured applicant by far. A redhead in her twenties from South Dakota, where Liv had once lived, Loren had never had children of her own, but she’d grown up wrangling kids in an extended family and she was a wise and knowledgeable caregiver. Employing Loren meant Liv could continue to work full-time for Yarak from their new home. The bird abatement business and commercial falconry in general was a highly specialized field. Liv and Nate had discussed hiring a general manager from the outside but decided against it. Yarak was too close to their hearts to turn over to an executive. Plus, Nate knew, Liv wanted to continue to be closely involved with the enterprise. She knew, and Nate con- ceded the point, that left entirely to his own devices, there was a very real probability that people on the outside might be hurt or killed.
Nate had given up on all of that when he’d gone straight and back on the grid. Liv was adamant that he stay there.
“Yes, Liv?” Loren asked.
“Can you please put Kestrel down for a nap?”
Liv turned in her chair and handed the baby to Loren. The nanny gently backed away toward the baby’s room so Kestrel’s release of Nate’s finger wasn’t jarring. Nate tried not to show his annoyance.
“Nate’s going to get the Swaddlers today,” Liv said to Loren. “Oh, good.”
“No more washing cloth diapers.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Loren said.
“Then it’s settled,” Liv said while turning back to her screen.
Nate beheld his wife, his daughter, and the nanny. He could not believe how his life had changed.
Nate and Liv turned their heads toward the front door simultaneously as the rumble of a large engine vibrated through the floor of the house. Nate admonished himself for not tracking the progress of the approaching vehicle he’d glimpsed. He’d gotten too wrapped up in Kestrel’s gesture to remember.
Going soft, he thought. “What is that?” Liv asked.
Nate strode across the dining room toward the picture window and eased the curtains aside. The massive RV was parked with its diesel engine rumbling less than thirty feet from his house. It was so large it filled the window.
“Someone must be lost,” Liv said. “Maybe.”
The engine shut off. Nate could see the form of a man behind the wheel. The man turned to stand up after he’d killed the engine and he was out of sight for a few seconds. It took that long, apparently, for the driver to walk through the behemoth to the side door. When it opened, it took Nate a few moments to realize who had come. Jeremiah Sandburg looked frail and ten years older than when Nate had last seen him. Sandburg’s hair had thinned and grayed and he moved stiffly. He opened the side door of the recreational vehicle and stood within the doorframe as if contemplating whether he wanted to take the long step down to the gravel. Sand- burg looked up plaintively toward the house.
“I’ll be a minute,” Nate said to Liv. “Do you know who it is?”
Nate said, “Remember that FBI agent who survived the massacre last spring? It’s him.”
“I thought he’d retired,” Liv said. “I did, too.”
Nate tried to fight the feeling of suspicion that always arose in him when he encountered law enforcement officials, especially feds.
“Are you going to invite him in?” Liv asked.
Nate opened the front door and said to her over his shoulder, “I’ll see what he wants.”
“Be a gentleman,” she cautioned.
“Always,” he said through gritted teeth as he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
Sandburg acknowledged him with a nod of his head. He seemed stuck in the doorframe.
“Nate Romanowski,” the man said. “You’re a hard man to find.”
“That’s the idea. What can I do for you?”
Sandburg had short-cropped brown hair, rimless glasses, and a thin face. When Nate had seen him the first time, Sandburg had had a thick barrel chest and the gliding moves of a one-time athlete. Not anymore. His recovery had obviously taken a tremendous physical toll.
Sandburg had been hit four times in an ambush that had killed longtime local sheriff Mike Reed, Sandburg’s superior from the FBI, and his partner Don Pollock. He was the only survivor of the attack except for the former county attorney Dulcie Schalk, who had retired to her family ranch. Nothing like it had ever happened in Saddlestring before. Nate kept his distance from town matters and gossip, but the reverberations of the incident still resonated.
Nate didn’t know Sandburg well, the way Joe Pickett did. Nate’s friend Joe had described the special agent as arrogant, condescending, and more than a little crooked. Sandburg liked to threaten civilians by describing how much trouble they’d be in if he felt they were lying to him—or refused to say what he wanted them to say.
Nate had no idea at all why Sandburg was there.